The much-hyped grouping of Woods, Mickelson and Watson mostly produced a comedy of errors, at least in the case of Phil and Bubba, whose best ball would not have beaten Woods on Thursday.
The duo combined to shoot 14 over par while Woods positioned himself for a run at his fourth U.S. Open title and first major victory since winning at Torrey Pines four years ago after an opening 1-under 69.
“This golf course, it’s so demanding,” Woods said. “And if you’re off your game just a little bit, you’re going to pay the price. And it’s hard to make pars. Phil and Bubba were off just a little bit. This is one of those Opens where it’s just really hard to make birdies. This is not like it was last year [at Congressional].
“This is a tough one. This is tough to make birdies. You’ve got to really grind, and for me I thought I hit the ball well today and I didn’t have a whole lot of putts from 10 feet or 15 feet or in. It’s just hard to get the ball close.”
Thompson, the 2007 U.S. Amateur runner-up at the Olympic Club, sure played as though he knew the course, finishing with seven birdies to go with three bogeys in an aggressive and fearless round. The 27-year-old former Alabama standout still couldn’t feel satisfied with 48 holes remaining and a familiar face lurking behind in another major.
“Give Tiger the spotlight,” Thompson said. “I don’t care. I’m going to go out and play my game. If I go out and putt the way I did today, I’ll be in contention.”
What a way for this championship to begin.
“Tiger was the old Tiger,” Watson said. “That was beautiful to watch. That’s what we all come to see. That’s what we all want to watch and that was awesome to see him strike the ball. Under par on this golf course is pretty good.”
Now ranked fourth in the world, Woods hit 10 of 14 fairways and 11 of 18 greens on a severely sloping course that he said played even faster than he expected.
Mickelson and Watson could not keep pace. Mickelson bogeyed his first three holes — the first one after hitting his tee shot on his opening hole, the ninth, into a tree and declaring a lost ball — and went on to a 76, his worst opening U.S. Open score since 1996.
Watson was worse. He made just one birdie, had a double-bogey at the 18th, and generally looked out of sorts. He hit just 5 of 14 fairways and only eight greens. He faces becoming the first Masters champion to miss the cut at the U.S. Open since in 1994.
“It beat me up today,” Watson said of Olympic. “It’s winning by … it’s beating me by eight right now. … It’s a lot better than I am. That golf course is too tough for me.
“It’s disappointing starting off like this, doesn’t matter what tournament. It’s a tough golf course, very tough for me. I just shot 8 over.”
Mickelson had expressed his approval over being grouped with Woods, who has brought out the best of him in their recent duels, including a 64-75 encounter in February during the final round at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
It was a different story on Thursday, as Mickelson made just one birdie and sprayed shots all over the course.
“I’ve got a tough challenge just to get to the weekend,” said Mickelson, referring to the 36-hole cut that includes the top 60 and ties. “I think I have to kind of put this round aside for now and see if I can just play one round under par and maybe that will get me to the weekend.”
You knew things were bad when the trio fell a hole behind the group in front of it, which included , considered among the slowest players in the game. Through their first 10 holes, Mickelson and Watson were a combined 9 over par. At times, it looked like a corporate outing.
But Woods endured the carnage, making three birdies and two bogeys. One of the birdies was a “fluke” as Woods drained a 40-footer at the par-4 fifth, one that he said was probably going off the green. He missed a short one at the third hole but came back with birdies at the fourth and fifth.
Starting on the ninth hole — due to logistical reasons, players are teeing off of Nos. 1 and 9 — Woods made five straight pars before hitting long at the 14th, where he was unable to get up and down. He got his first birdie with a two-putt at the par-5 17th.
Overall, Woods was solid, hitting numerous quality shots and picking up where he left off two weeks ago after his victory at the Memorial.
“I know I can hit the ball this way and I know I have been hitting the golf ball this way,” he said. “And I was able to put it together in a major championship. I’m going to need it the next three days. This golf course is only going to get faster.”